In Spanish, antibalas means “bulletproof”, and while the band of that name has so far avoided lunatics with assault rifles, it’s showing definite signs of being indestructible. Despite recent and extensive lineup changes, New York City’s Afrobeat juggernaut is now readying its first full-length release since 2012 and touring the jazz-festival circuit with renewed vigour.
As singer-percussionist Sifu Amayo explains, it’s kind of an old-meets-new situation. Under the London-born, Lagos-raised musician’s direction, Antibalas is returning to its roots in the sounds he experienced at the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Shrine nightclub when he was a teenager: hypnotic, drum-heavy jams topped off with jazzy horn solos and a socially conscious message. But the younger players who have flooded into the band’s lineup since 2015 are also bringing their own 21st-century touches, including electronic treatments and heavier guitars.
“We have a new generation of musicians who have joined, just in the past year,” Amayo tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. “So just to get them going we’ve been reviving some of what I call older new material—a lot of stuff that I’d written in the past that was very epical—big, big compositions that just did not fit on the albums that we were doing back then.
“I was kind of holding on to the idea of playing longer compositions that made people study and think and want to know more, as opposed to the three-minute songs that we’re all more used to,” he continues. “So it was an opportunity to try something old and new—‘old’ meaning how we used to listen to music back in the day. You’d put an LP on and let it play, and you’d make time to listen to it. So that’s where we are right now.”
Where the Gods Are at Peace, which Antibalas will release in August, exemplifies this new approach. It contains just three long songs, which link together as the first leg of an eventual trilogy with sci-fi overtones. The central concept involves the arrival of new gods—or “alien cowboys”, as Amayo notes—who join forces with indigenous landkeepers and others to clean up the mess we’re now in.
“Some of us are struggling with this situation where we are today; some of us are coping badly,” Amayo explains. “So I figured, as a musician, I had a mission to look ahead and offer some sort of… Not solutions, but I’m saying ‘Okay, why don’t we just push forward?’ So that’s my perspective: I want to go to a place where the gods are at peace, not a world where the gods are constantly at war.”
And what better way to get there than through music?
Antibalas plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (June 23), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.